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The kids are all right

Broad Street Hockey lists reasons why the Flyers’ 2011-12 season was actually a good one.  I agree, I hope Paul Holmgren does too.  Still, the team lost, seemed to be hopelessly outplayed by their second round opponent.

Scott Hartnell didn’t blame the rookies:

“I give our young guys a lot of credit. They played with a lot of guts that first series. A few of our young guys were banged up there but they’re still putting on the skates and battling for us. It wasn’t a case of inexperience. I think they were the better team almost every game. It’s frustrating to say, but they played better than us. We’ve got a long summer to think about it.” (from Dave Isaac’s Twitter feed)

I think he’s partly wrong there– inexperience absolutely was a handicap for the Flyers, but that isn’t the same thing as blaming the rookies.  They did great, as he pointed out. I argued that they over-achieved, DGS said the team under-achieved, according to predictions he made based on mean scoring to be expected from each player. His numbers were remarkably close to what transpired.

I think DGS watched that baseball movie one too many times, and besides, that’s baseball, not hockey. Sorry to all the baseball fans out there, but baseball doesn’t require a tenth of the split-second decisions per minute that hockey does. Baseball is the thinking man’s game. It gives everyone a lot of time to think, including the players, compared to hockey anyway.

Examining each player is fine and dandy when assessing the potential of a hockey player, but knowing the individuals only tells you so much about the team. The team is not a bunch of guys, it’s a team, a thing in itself, capable of increasing or stifling production from individuals. The law of averages won’t tell you about that, but the Rule of 5 will give you a good idea.  The Rule of Five doesn’t predict anything specific, but it emphasizes the importance of team chemistry, and can be an indicator of whether a team is likely to maximize or minimize its members’ potential.

The Rule of 5 was based on records, records that tell us how many top players Stanley Cup winning teams moved the summer before they won the Stanley Cup. It doesn’t matter if they traded up or down or sideways.  If they moved two of their top five players, or more than three of their top ten skaters, they did not win. The Rule doesn’t exactly explain why a team can only lose so many leaders and still win, not all teams that keep their corps group around win. It is not a two-way thing. Yet it makes perfect sense: it’s like healthy bodies.  They won’t all win but mostly the less healthy will lose a physical contest.  The graver the rule infraction, the less success you can expect.

Back in July of 2011, I pointed out that Paul Holmgren broke the Rule of 5 by trading away too many of their leaders, too many of the guys that the team relied on for scoring and direction. When they lost Pronger, that error was compounded.  All the Rule of 5 said was that the Flyers would not win the Stanley Cup. Seems like a safe bet really, to say any team won’t win the Cup, you have a 29 in 30 chance of being right. It’s still a stupid rule to break, if you really think you have a shot that season.

Dale Tallon also broke the Rule of 5, or did he?  Did he find the loophole?  So many of the players he brought to the Panthers were familiar with each other, they had played together recently.  The chemistry was fairly evident in practice, a low-grade excitement, a radiant confidence.  They were like Kris Versteeg’s hair: loose and loving it.  It was just one pregame skate, during a winning streak, but it isn’t a stretch to imagine they went into a lot of games feeling more confident than anyone outside their team expected.

Those players had similar motivation– people called them overpaid, they probably perceived themselves as undervalued by the rest of the League.  A lot of them had been traded or dropped unceremoniously as “busts” by their prior teams.  Some had been toiling endlessly with the Panthers.  They got no respect.  But they were mostly not rookies.  They still didn’t win the Cup, but considering how many moves Tallon made in one off season, it is truly remarkable that they got as far as they did.  I would argue that the same is true of the Flyers.

It’s very simple: team chemistry (which some deny the significance of) does not grow in a single season. Kids think it does, they think it sprouts in a summer or even a really good week. They’re wrong. It’s like a marriage, it takes more than a year to really be reading each others’ minds. Pooh-pooh that idea if you like, but a team that can read each others’ minds is going to work a lot better than one that doesn’t.

That brings me back to the rookie issue. The Flyers rookies absolutely performed up to, even exceeded their potential, at this stage of their development. But even at the end, even the ones who played the whole season, they were still rookies. They still couldn’t predict where the puck would come out of a two man battle, not nearly so accurately as a vet could. They lacked that micro-second of patience needed to make a pass under pressure. They simply could not be as accurate as their elders, and their elders were too few to make up for it. They might feel like they let someone down, the whole team might feel that way, but they didn’t. They all responded as well as could possibly have been expected when they were thrown together in September of 2011.

Which is why Jagr had such a good time. He likes seeing kids find their way and helping them out. As he said years ago, that is much more rewarding than just winning. Of course he said that after leading several young players to a gold medal at the Worlds, and that’s always more fun than losing.  Of this season he said:

“That was probably my most enjoyable year I ever had. I win some Cups, I win some trophies, but I love this year. From the organization to the last player on the team and the fans, they were so nice to me. I hate to finish it right now. That’s the worst feeling. You finish the whole story, the whole year, that’s a sad day today for me. I don’t want to cry right now.” -from Dave Isaac on Sulia

I don’t think he would trade this season for another Cup with some other team, even if he knew that’s how it would work out.  will he be back?  He doesn’t know, just like he said he wouldn’t know yet.  It all depends on the body, because the heart is still in it I think.

Kimmo Timonen, understandably, sounded despondent, talked about this possibly being his last shot.  That’s a possibility I cried over back in July, so I can’t get too agitated about it now.  On the other hand, even if he doesn’t have many more years in the old bones, he could have one, which is exactly how much more he has on his contract.  Will Holmgren try to move him?  Only if he is hell bent on breaking the team.  We’ll see what the news is on his knee.  That is the sort of thing that could snip exactly a year off of his career.

I believe Laviolette works wonders with young players, but his judgment when it came to Rinaldo was very disappointing. If he really had no one else to put in, so be it. But if he left one healthy Black Ace out and used Rinaldo instead, he deep-sixed the team right there.  Playing Rinaldo was the pinnacle of trying to toughen up the team’s game, against a team that was beyond intimidation:

By making that decision, Lavy failed abysmally to teach Rinaldo what he needs to know: don’t do that stupid dangerous shit. It’s going out of style because it doesn’t work anyway. I worry that the lesson has not been learned by player or coach.

If Holmgren really had a plan last summer, and wasn’t just overreacting to pressure, he will keep them all together, with as many of the vets as he can.  So, he over-paid for a goalie.  Bryzgalov is an improvement in terms of individual statistics, for what that’s worth.  No, he isn’t going to carry the team, see how much the Coyotes needed him.  But the Flyers could be in worse shape, it’s time to let bygones be bygones in net.

This group, if given another shot, will be that much better next year. If Holmgren had a plan, it was for next year or (if sophomore slumps plague the team) the next. It was never about this year. If that was the plan, it was a good one.

It’s very unfortunate he felt the need to say he was gunning for a Cup this season, even if that’s exactly what every team says every year. Flyers fans have come to believe it, no matter what common sense could tell them.  It’s a shame, because I feel like we should be celebrating a really good season that had no guarantee of getting this far, the way some Sens fans did.  The kids are absolutely all right.

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